India became the world’s most populous nation for the first time last week, overtaking mainland China.

India will officially surpass China as the world’s most populous nation on 1 July, with a population of 1.428 billion compared with China’s 1.425 billion, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report released on Wednesday said. But assuming constant population growth in the year to 1 July, India’s population would have crossed China’s around mid-April. That’s because India’s population grew 0.7% in 2022, while China’s peaked—and shrank– that year. India’s population won’t peak until 2065, according to the UN projections, which exclude China’s special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong.

If these two territories are included, India’s population has not yet crossed China’s, but will do by the end of the year.

India’s emergence as the world’s most populous nation gives it a demographic advantage that could drive economic growth for years to come. With over 254 million youth and a median age of 28.4, India boasts a large pool of workers, consumers, and innovators that can contribute significantly to economic expansion, experts said. However, this advantage requires the creation of jobs, which remains the country’s most pressing challenge.

“The country will not just enjoy an abundant supply of labour from this working-age cohort, but the rising domestic consumption should help the nation tide over any external shocks, a fact well demonstrated during the covid-19 pandemic,” said Andrea Wojnar, representative of the United Nations Population Fund India. “As the country with the largest youth cohort, its 254 million youth (15-24 years) can be a source of innovation, new thinking and lasting solutions.”

To be sure, India’s exact population is not readily known as the country postponed its scheduled enumeration for 2021 due to the pandemic. However, a Registrar General of India report had projected India’s population much lower than the UN projections—at 1.38 billion—for 2022.

The UNFPA report, titled “8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The Case for Rights and Choices”, showed that more than two-thirds (68%) of India’s population is of working age (15-64 years) in 2023, a key metric to assess the economic growth potential of the biggest seat of the global population. This figure was higher than the global average of 65%.

India ranks fifth among G20 countries on this count, trailing only Saudi Arabia (71%), Brazil (70%), South Korea (70%), and China (69%). But also include the population that will start working in the years to come (age group 0-15), and India ranks third among the world’s top economies. Yesteryear wonders of the Western economic world are set to walk into the sunset as their elderly population swells and fertility rate slides.

Indeed, experts believe that India’s youth put it at a demographic advantage.

The UNFPA’s projections on median age, the number that separates the population into two equal sizes, puts India’s figure at 28.4 years. It will rise—but only to 38.1 years by 2050, which will be lower than the global median of 36.2 years in that year. The median Indian of 2050 will still be much younger than today’s median citizen of Germany, France, or the UK.

Asia’s third-largest economy is also on track to be the world’s fastest-growing major economy this year, at a time the global economy is widely expected to slow.

While India’s large population should aid the overall economic growth, it would also necessitate the need to create jobs.

A public survey commissioned by the UNFPA and conducted by YouGov asked a representative sample of 7,797 individuals across eight countries, including India, for their views on population issues. Most respondents said the current world population was too large and the fertility rate was too high. Around 63% of the 1,007 Indian respondents in the survey expressed concern about the country’s economic situation due to the possible changes to the population.

According to the UN’s 2022 projections, more than half of the projected increase in global population by 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tanzania and India.

India’s population has grown by more than 1 billion since 1950 and is estimated to touch 1.67 billion by 2050. India and China together account for over a third of the world’s population. However, India’s population growth has also slowed in recent decades.

“I foresee a rapid decline in fertility because the age of marriage is increasing now in India. Also, the cost of living and cost of childcare is increasing. Because of this, from now on, the individual will play a very important role in declining fertility,” said D.A. Nagdeve, professor at International Institute for Population Sciences.

According to Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, as India emerges as the world’s most populous country, the priority should be ensuring the availability of comprehensive and equitable services to people, irrespective of their location or social class.

“We urgently need to ensure the education and skills of our young population,” Muttreja said.

A quarter of India’s population is in the 0-14 age group, and 7% is over 65 years, while China’s is 17% and 14%, respectively, indicating that China’s ageing population is growing faster than India’s.

India will inevitably see the same fate someday. “Governments should plan for healthcare for the older population, as their share will increase,” Nagdeve said. “We should plan for much more institutional care since the concept of family is going down in India.”

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